I’ve seen more than anyone’s fair share of murder victims. More than I’d care to count, actually. I’ve also seen a variety of methods and instruments used by killers to achieve their goal(s)—gunshots, edged weapons, etc.
Some victims were poisoned; others were killed by hanging, strangulation, fire, torture, beatings, blunt instrument bludgeoning and, well, you name the manner and instruments used to kill and I’ve probably seen the end result. Unfortunately, it’s not long before dead bodies—the victims of senseless violence—quickly begin to stack up in the old memory bank.
Sure, cops get used to seeing carnage. They have to in order to survive the job. Still, there are cases that cling to the outer fringes of the mind, remaining fresh in our thoughts for many years. These, the often thought of, aren’t necessarily the most gruesome or the most difficult to solve. Not at all. In fact, what sticks with one officer may not affect another in the same way.
A few homicides occasionally creep back onto the “replay” reel inside my brain—the killing of children, the crazy guy who hacked his sister-in-law with an ax because she wouldn’t give him money for a pack of cigarettes, the kid found hanging from an extension cord in an abandoned factory, and, of course, the case I’m about to describe to you. It came to mind recently because of rains we’ve received lately here in Delaware.
The storms came at night, bringing brilliant displays of zig-zagging lightning followed by earth- and window-rattling thunder. Windblown raindrops the size of chickpeas pounded against our windows and rooftop. This is how it was the night I saw the dead woman crying, and it was the morning after when I had the unpleasant task of doing the “death knock.”
So slip on a pair of boots and a raincoat and join me on a brief journey into my memory. And yes, sometimes tales do begin with the weather…
It was a brutal storm that night, one that delivered a hard-driving and bitterly cold winter rain. Accompanying winds tugged hard against my long, school-bus-yellow rain coat, sending its tails fluttering and flapping, exposing my brown over tan deputy sheriff uniform. It—the uniform—was not waterproof. Not even close.
The ground at the crime scene was extremely muddy, and with each step my once shiny brown shoes collected gobs of thick, wet soil until it felt as if bricks were tied to the bottoms of my feet.
These were the deplorable conditions in which I met the crying dead woman.
Raindrops the size of gumdrops pelted her smooth and round caramel-colored face. They gathered and pooled at the corners of her eyes, eventually spilling out across her cheeks like tiny rivers following the contours of her flesh until they poured from her in miniature waterfalls.
It was one on one—me and the victim.
Passenger door open.
She’s lying there,
Bottom half in, top half out.
Her face aimed at the sky.
Rain falling into her open mouth.
Cheap dollar-store tennis shoes and half-socks, the socks her youngest daughter—the seven-year-old—called baby socks.
Her wet hair, mingled with mud, sticks, and windswept leaves.
Power lines crackled and buzzed overhead.
The yellow Magnate beam, a spotlight on her dim gray eyes.
Not a flicker.
Different pattern than the rubber on her Chrysler.
Driver’s window down.
Three rounds—one to the head and two to the torso.
Five empty casings.
Not a revolver.
Half-empty wine bottle.
Cheap convenience store label.
Not her brand according to the ladies in her church group. “Oh we don’t drink. Neither did she. Except on special occasions. Yep, it must have been something or somebody really special for her to drink that stuff.”
“Was there a somebody special?”
Eyes cast downward.
Blushes and eyelash flutterings all around. “Well … she did stay after Wednesday night preaching a few times. But they were meetings strictly about church business. After all, he is the Reverend. A good man.”
A stammer or two.
A good man.
The rain comes harder.
Droplets hammer her open eyes.
She doesn’t blink.
A dead woman crying.
The other, long strides.
Running away, possibly.
Zigzagging to the woods.
Bullet lodged in base of a spruce pine.
One round left to find.
Water inside my collar, down my back.
Cloth snagged on jagged tree branch.
Plaid shirt material.
Still visible in the rain?
The missing fifth round?
Maglite never fails, even in torrential rain.
Light finds a shoe in the underbrush.
It’s attached to the foot of an adult male.
Bullet in back.
The fifth round.
Coming together nicely.
Special wine for special occasion…
A good man.
Sure he is.
Tiny face peering from window.
Waiting for Mama?
A lump in my throat.
Scent of frying bacon in the air.
I raise my knuckles to the door.
It’s the worst job in the world,
The “Death Knock.”
Door swings open.
“No, she didn’t come home after church. Called friends and family. Nobody knows.”
“Yes, I have ideas.
And I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Tire tracks match.
Preacher hangs head in shame.
To profess love.
Today, our rains have stopped.
But I’m thinking of the crying dead woman and her kids, her loving husband and, of course, baby socks.